History of the Original Illinois Club (1895)


Dr. Coker + Illinois Club Ball

 The Illinois Club (1927) 

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For the past 120 years, the Original Illinois Club has given a Carnival ball in New Orleans for the purpose of presenting young women of color to society as debutant queens and court maids. This practice began in 1895, and continued every year except at times of national and local emergencies.

The photo shown above was taken on March 2, 1927 at the spacious Bethlehem Temple on Dumaine Street where society folks from many sections of the city mingled with other notables from New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and various other cities.

Mr. Raoul J. Llopis, president, had the pleasure of introducing the charming young ladies (shown above) to all the other guests present. The lovely and gracious queen of 1927 was Miss Althea Dumas. Her maids were presented in the following order; but, unfortunately, only first initials were provided: Misses F. Jones, E. Ford, M. Raymond, C. E. Crocker, A. Prudhomme, E. A. Foster, I. Pernell, L. Saucier, D. Todd, G. J. Evans, A. R. Gardy, T. Smith, V. Allen, E. Johnson, L. Betts, A. Decoudreaux, V. Baranco, J.E. Davis, and L. D. Verges.

The history of the club goes back to 1894 when Wiley J. Knight, a native of Tennessee and a brief resident of Chicago, moved to New Orleans. Tradition has it that the name was the Illinois Club because so many members were Pullman porters on the Illinois Central Railroad, a well-respected job at the turn of the century. No one knows if this is exactly the truth or if Wesley Knight chose the name because he had lived in Chicago.

Out of his desire to teach dancing and pass on traditional social customs, Mr. Knight opened his own dance studio in uptown New Orleans on Cadiz near Camp Street. The sons and daughters of many families attended and out of his classes the Illinois Club was formed in 1895.

The Louisiana Weekly’s article from 1927, describing the ball shown above, wrote of the gorgeously decorated hall of majestic palms as well as the white canopy erected from the street to the entrance. There was a white runner canvas from the entrance up both flights of stairs and multi-colored lights which added to the colorful spectacle. Club members wore pink or pale blue satin mantles  on which were embroidered the letter “I.” Over their left shoulders hung a large replica of a souvenir saxophone. Guests danced to the music of Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Band and fashionable ladies, dressed in colorful costumes in pastel shades and tints, added to the beautiful scenery and even charmed the eye of the beholder.

In two interviews conducted in 1945 & 1950, Mr. Knight spoke of the early years of the Illinois Club. He stated that their first ball was held at Globe Hall on St. Peter and Marais Streets. Balls began at 10 pm due to the fact that some of their members were butlers and maids and had to complete jobs at their place of employment. It was not until the 1920s that the club became more exclusive. During this time people of color began entering the business world and, as professionals, they became interested in joining the club. He went on to say that women were members for about 10 years until a male president made it into a men’s club. Today, wives participate but the men traditionally  develop the themes and make all decisions relating to costumes and decorations.

Queen of Original Illilois- Doris Gaynell Taylor (1936)

Miss Doris Gaynell Taylor – Queen of Original Illinois Ball (1936)

Traditionally, the queen and her court are chosen by debutant committees who interview the girls whose names are put up by members and their families. The royalty is chosen by seniority in the club, with members’ daughters getting 1st choice, relatives of members receiving 2nd choice, and friends of longtime members coming next.

By 1927, a rift in the Illinois Club caused younger members to splinter off and form a new organization. They named it the Young Men Illinois Club, Inc. The old-timers remained in the Illinois Club but soon started calling themselves the Original Illinois Club instead of just the Illinois Club. The name, however, does not necessarily reflect the membership today.

The traditions of the past still continue today. Debutantes must dress in beautiful white gowns for the ball with headpieces containing red, orange, black, and yellow feathers. Formal teas are held wherein all ladies must wear a suit, white gloves and a hat. Proper table manners are taught and young ladies must learn to curtsy and walk properly. Above all, debutantes must learn the steps to the Chicago Glide, the official waltz of the club which was written around the same time as the founding of the organization.

Wiley Knight, who is often referred to as the “Father of Negro Society in New Orleans” passed away August 7, 1953. His services were held at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church and interment in Carrollton Cemetery. He believed that by bringing girls out at their best in society it added purpose to their womanhood. He wanted young women of color, through his organization, to develop a sense of worth, become better educated and focus on their goals and accomplishments in society. For these reasons, his organization continues today.

Sources: The Louisiana Weekly, 05 March 1927 p. 5 and 19 March 1927 p. 5; Times- Picayune, 07 February 1988 p. 49; www:livingneworleans.com (interview with Phoebe Ferguson) “Screen Shots” 10 November 2008 by Lisa M. Daliet;

A special thank you goes to Sandra Colomb for providing me with the beautiful black & white photo shown above.

Lolita V. Cherrie

28 thoughts on “History of the Original Illinois Club (1895)

  1. My mom was presented by the Original Illinois Men. I have a picture of her but she is deceased and i do not know what year she was presented. Is it possible for you to assist me with finding out what year she was presented. Her name was ShirleyMae Rigard. She was born in August of 1925 in New Orleans.
    Thank you for any help.

    • Thank you for visiting CreoleGen! We have an answer for your question – Miss Shirley Mae Marguerite Rigard was presented at the 1941 Ball which was held in the old Bethlehem Temple. The queen that year was Miss Ione Geraldine Bowers.

      • Dee Ione Geraldine Bowers was my Father, Charles Bowers’ sister. Believe it or not I came across the dress she wore as queen in my grandmother’s cedar chest.

        • Hi there! If the dress is in good condition and you would like to share it with the public, we may be able to exhibit it at the Presbytere in our Mardi GRAS exhibit. Feel free to email me at wphillips@CRT.la.gov. Thank you!

  2. The fourth gentleman up on the left is my Grandpa, Joseph P. Geddes. He was also one of the founders of the Original Illinois. My mother, Inez Geddes was queen of the ball one year but I don’t know what year.


    • Hi Alva:
      I am currently researching info for a book project on black carnival queens-

      If you have an info/pictures during her reign, I’d love to share. Please send me an email to discuss further.


  3. Thank you for this article. That picture of my mother is in my front hallway. My grandfather – her father – was President of the Original Illinois the year she was queen. One of my regrets in life is that I did not ‘come out’ – I was young and head strong and didn’t want to do anything that whatever I thought at the time. What I didn’t realize is you do those things for your parents and my grandmother would have loved it. Fortunately, my oldest daughter made her debut with the Club and was 1st maid. She wasn’t queen because we thought it would cost too much money and my grandmother wound up spending a few thousand dollars on someone else’s dress so we didn’t save anything by that decision. Such incredible memories.

    • I would love to speak to anyone who is related to former Queens. My name is Kelly Parker, a local writer looking to tell the stories of black carnival queens. I have always been quite fascinated with our traditions and how they may differ or be similar to those that were seen as mainstream. Anyone interested in talking further, please contact me at kparkernola@yahoo.com

      Thank you!

        • Hey Cheryl. I’ve talked to many people about this idea, and my fascination has now turned into a book project! I’d love to interview you to learn more about your experience and memories if you’re interested!

          please shoot me an email

          • Cheryll-please send me an email (think you did) but I can’t seem to find it–I am beginning to schedule interviews. Just wanted to know if you are in NOLA–and we’ll go from there.

          • I have several. Including one where her queens cape was trimmed in ermine. It is a wonder. Amazingly, up here in Boston, people who see the pictures assume those were her wedding pictures. A book on what happens in New Orleans is sorely needed.

          • Hi Marceline-

            I know what these stories mean to our community; and they are deeply personal and important to women like you–my intention is to only tell the stories shared with me–I take it quite seriously. I’d love to hear your mother’s story-I will begin to schedule interviews in late May/early June. Please email me if you’re interested in taking part. I really think this could be something special. kparkernola@yahoo.com

          • thanks! I will email you. The large story to tell that I mentioned is one that includes my mother, but also many others. Being away from New Orleans I have seen how threatening the debutant scene is to many others, especially north of the MasonDixon line. At first, it amazed me because it made no sense. As the years have passed and I understand what all of that means it is important to tell the stories accurately and in a way that maintains the history. To cover up and change the story keeps racism and sexism in tact. To do otherwise reminds people that racism is prevalent and the denial of the debutant scene in New Orleans is one way to keep the stereotypes going.

      • My name is Bernadette Robinet Pickett. My dad served as president of the YMI for years and I have three sisters who are past queens and myself and baby sisters were first maids.

        • Bernadette-

          This has actually turned into a book project! I will be researching and interviewing throughout the summer-please email me your contact info if you’re interested in sharing. I’ve been told this would be an interesting topic for publishing. I happen to agree. Thanks for your response.

    • Hi, Kinitra Brooks here. I was Queen in 1996 and my sisters were Queen (Cincia) and First Maid (Kelsi) in 2002. We still have pics and things from Cincia’s reign though a lot my stuff was lost in the storm. Please contact me at kinitradbrooks@gmail.com–we would love to see if we can arrange an interview!

  4. Looking for carnival queens of black carnival orgs from 1950’s/60’s 70’s 80’s 90’s and post Katrina (2006-2008)

    I am currently scheduling interviews for a book project on black carnival queens. I’d love to share your stories/photos/memories.
    anyone interested, please contact me: kparkernola@yahoo.com

  5. My mother, Clytie Florence Marchand, was a debutant with OMI in the late 1940s. We had pictures that were destroyed in the Katrina Flood waters. Can you tell me the year she was presented? Are there any group photos around? Her sister, Doris Cecile Marchand made her debut around 1950. I am writing our family history and would love to reference this tradition.

  6. The 3rd man standing to the left is my great grandfather Samuel Joesph Allen along with my great grand aunt Vivien Allen seated below him.

  7. Hi!
    I may have connected with one of your sisters on Facebook recently. In fact I am almost certain. I will be reconnecting with folks immediately after MardI Gras, so I will certainly be in touch.
    Thanks for your interest in this project!

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